Friday, October 13, 2017

Game 264: Karma (1987)

The script above the title seems to have been invented for the game. Some documentation that comes with the game translates it, but I didn't find any place in the game itself where I needed it.
    
Karma
France
Loriciels (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for DOS
Date Started:  2 October 2017
Date Ended: 6 October 2017
Total Hours: 8
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 30
Ranking at Time of Posting: 152/265 (37%)
   
For those who thought Tera: La Cité des Crânes (1986) was too comprehensible comes Karma, essentially the same game as Tera but with worse graphics and a weird Japanese skin. The game box manages to combine, among other things, a samurai, Yoda, a spaceman with a heavy weapon, and a robot.
      
Fighting some kind of robot monster. The woman's face appears at the top of the screen every time some kind of luck or die-rolling is involved in a decision.
     
The game takes place among a confederation of planets called Karma, Iron, Betel, Quarz, Hell, and Flame. Karma was the capital of this empire, established by the Ancient Gods with virtues that ensured mankind lived in harmony with nature and with each other. But after thousands of years of peace, monsters of flesh and metal are roaming the countryside, people are having nightmares so disturbing that they refuse to sleep, and the other planets seem to have forgotten Karma's existence. A Council of Elders thinks that someone named Ming has found the source of power of the Ancient Gods and is using it to wreak havoc and gain power for himself. They enlist the PC to assemble a team representing Karma's various castes and solve the mystery. This apparently is going to involve collecting a series of talismans scattered among the six planets.
        
If nothing else, the game perfectly captures the quality of an Asian "mockbuster" movie poster.
    
I get most of that from the manual. Thank goodness I found that. Trying to interpret the plot from Karma's opening screens would land you in therapy. They start with a view from inside a spaceship with a message saying "Hyperspace Jump," then move on to the question of "What role to embody?" The next two screens offer a couple of possible answers: "A samurai or a brave native."
     
     
So far, nothing odd. But then the next "options" come up: "Embody Goldorak," referring to a character from the Japanese cartoon UFO Robot Grendizer (1975-1977), which aired in France as Goldorak. I don't know if it featured robotic dinosaurs, though; Goldorak was, to the best I can determine, a humanoid robot.
       
     
If that isn't odd enough, the next option appears: "Or Mme. Butterfly." That would admittedly be original for an RPG, but I I don't believe the depth of role-playing in Karma quite supports it.
      
Yay! I've always wanted to role-play a love-sick geisha who commits suicide!
 
Does it seem at this point like the developers wanted to create a Japanese-themed RPG but only knew like two things about Japan? It would be like someone in Japan trying to set a game in England based on what he knew from television. "You can role-play Queen Elizabeth, or . . . uh . . . Austin Powers!"
   
Anyway, before we get a third option  suddenly a negative of a screaming ape appears, for some reason, saying "Oh pardon!"
        
This actually might be a vampire.
    
After that, we get the backstory exposition:
       
Karma. A megalopolis turned resolutely towards the future. What future? With these metal monsters ravaging the countryside. Formerly, harmony reigned in homes; today these villages are prey to aggressors. Pray to the goddess, because demons are everywhere.
      

      
Your quest, oh honorable adventurer, will take you to the stars. Who will accompany you? Ansai the Sorcerer? Tori the Samurai? Tsurug the Magician? Go to the Temple of Ineffable Truth. Or Mariko, the priest with extrasensory powers.
       
Character creation begins with a difficulty setting (0 to 9), name, and sex. The game then asks if you want to play as a warrior. If you say "yes," it presents you with some kind of minigame involving a sword thrust at you. I wasn't able to figure it out. If you fail the game or say "no" to the question of being a warrior, you get to pick a class from the weirdest list I've ever seen: magician, Bonze (Buddhist monk), astronaut, priest, necromancer, merchant, and cyborg.
       
I couldn't figure out how to win this mini-game.
     
Each class has 35 attribute points distributed in predetermined ways, plus an extra pool of 6 points that you allocate as you see fit. Attributes are intelligence, willpower, charm, endurance, vitality, wisdom, skill, agility, and strength.
     
I go for a balanced astronaut.
    
The player starts alone in the city of Karma (in Tera, you had to explore for a while before you found the city), the "capital of the world," which you can enter to visit a store or hospital.
     
I guess "Karma" is both the planet and city name.
    
The store sells a couple of different armor types, katanas for melee attacks, laser guns for ranged attacks, various sundries like healing potions and rations, and maps of some of the explorable dungeons. The 900 gold that you begin the game with doesn't go far.
     
Purchasing some starting equipment.
      
Like Tera, Karma's main game world is 30 x 30, wrapping around on itself, but nudging the character one square east for every north/south "lap," meaning that by just going consistently north or south, you eventually hit every square. Locations are randomized for each new game. The four-color graphics for Tera weren't great. Here, they they range from barely tolerable to completely incomprehensible. They seem to be shooting for a kind of abstract Asian ink wash style, not quite Shan Shui or Sumi-e. Someone who knows more about art might be able to identify the right term.
      
This is at least recognizable as a bridge.
But I'm not sure what's happening here.
      
Commands haven't changed much from Tera. You move with the directional pad and have about 20 possible keyboard commands, including (E)ntrer, (L)ire, (M)onter, (O)uvrir and (P)rendre, corresponding to "Enter," "Read," "Climb," "Open," and "Take." As with Tera, if you enter a command that doesn't make sense for the situation, it throws it back at you with a question mark: "Combattre?" But it also does that when it wants to confirm valid commands, so the whole thing is pretty annoying.
     
In-game documentation of commands.
    
The sound is assaultive and near-constant. In some ways, it's creative what the developers managed to do with the PC speaker. A rapid series of beeps for a laser firing; a crescendo of boops for a ship taking off. But with such primitive effects possible with that hardware, the creators would have been better off leaving more things silent.
   
Most of the 900 squares on the game map are just images of landscape. You occasionally run across a random monster. Sometimes you find gold pieces on the ground when you enter a new area; other times, there's an earthquake and you take damage. Waypoints generally offer trite messages (e.g., "May fortune favor your path"), although some give you directions back to Karma or to the Temple of Ineffable Truth.
      
The map shows the locations of important buildings.
     
Most of the key locations are one-room buildings with one NPC standing out front. (Some of them might be more than one room; see below.) Names of such places include the Ranji School of War, the Pavilion of Supreme Harmony, the Hermitage of Heavenly Tranquility, and the Fortress of Koriu.
     
"Hamlet of the Source." A necromancer NPC stands outside.
     
Each location can be entered, and each has exactly one chest that can be opened for a random treasure.
      
The interior of the Dojo of Samurais of Ryukyu.
      
The NPCs in front of the buildings don't say much when you talk with them, but any or all of them can join the party. I think the names are randomized for each new game. I got Ishiko the merchant, XU009 the cyborg, Shisei the Buddhist monk, Masamsu the ninja, and a bunch of other characters in my first game.
      
XU009 the cyborg joins me amidst the crystals of the Polygon of Transcendental Meditation.
     
I had 15 members at one point. Tera limited you to three. But I soon found out that more members means more of a drain on food, and I got into a situation where most of them starved to incapacitation before I could find my way back to Karma and purchase more rations. Once there, I found out that while the hospital is free for the main character, you have to pay to get others to recover from states of unconsciousness. I didn't have enough money and I had to start over.
       
I don't have enough money to get Koyomi out of his "desperate state."
     
On subsequent games, I determined that you really need a mix of classes because only certain classes excel at the skills that damage certain enemies. For instance, necromancers excel at the "pray" ability against undead and Buddhist monks have the easiest time dispelling spirits. But NPCs often run off without warning, meaning you can never feel comfortable that you have a good, diverse, permanent party.
     
This party was large but ultimately unsustainable.
     
Combat theoretically has several options: strike, shoot, mental attack, dispel, cast a spell, and pray. In practice, only certain characters, with only certain items, can make use of some of these options. And some of them only work on some enemies. For most flesh enemies, you mostly choose either (L)utter to hit with a melee weapon or (T)irer to shoot with a laser. Only three characters can be active in combat, but you can choose from all the characters in your party at the beginning of every round, favoring the ones with the skills that can help against the present enemies.
      
The game waits for my input against a giant snake.
    
One advantage over Tera is a meter at the bottom of the screen showing the enemy's health. Monsters deliver gold and experience as in most RPGs; experience leads to level-ups, which lead to one-point increases in random attributes.
      
One of my more lucrative combats.
      
The first goal is to save up 2,000 gold pieces (and that is the currency; I'm not defaulting to usual RPG-speak) to purchase a ship, which you can then launch from starport. Once launched, you consult a map and enter coordinates for the planet you want to jump to, being careful not to run out of fuel.
     
Consulting the star map.
     
Minions of Ming often attack during jumps, putting you in a minigame that works like the Pirates of Sham in Tera. You mentally divide the screen into a grid of 9 cells, try to figure out as early as possible which cell the enemy ship is approaching from, and hold down the respective number on the pad to shoot it down. If you're too slow or choose the wrong number, the enemy gets a shot at you, which depletes your fuel.
     
The forces of Ming are merciless. I'm holding down the "6" key.
     
I've visited two planets so far, and each has a 10 x 10 outdoor map with only one other structure besides the starport. In both cases, however, that structure has offered a dungeon maze, and it occurs to me that I might have missed one or more dungeons on Karma, assuming that all buildings were only one-room. The doors are not obvious.
     
Moving through a dungeon door.
     
Oh, and you can only save the game on Karma, making space travel rather dangerous.

I explored one of the dungeons for a while and ended up getting killed by a vampire. I didn't have the right party composition to defeat him.
      
Lasers don't work on vampires, apparently.
      
The dirty secret is that I hex-edited my party's gold to even afford the ship in the first place, just so I could document what visiting other planets looked like. I don't know how you do it legitimately. The 20-30 gold pieces that you earn post-combat take a long time to add up to 2,000, and while you're saving, you have to keep everyone equipped (only laser weapons, at 600 gold pieces each, damage the ubiquitous metal monsters), fed, and healed--assuming you can keep them in your party at all, and they don't just go running off with the equipment you've purchased for them.

One last note: Just like Tera, Karma has a "boss key" (as in, your boss has just come up behind you), called by hitting the "H" key twice, which displays a nonsense bar graph. These two games and NetHack are the only ones I know with this feature.
     
My boss: "Jesus, Bolingbroke. Don't you know how to use Excel?"
     
I'm writing this entry assuming that I'm done with the game, inclined to give it about a 30 on the GIMLET--a few points lower than Tera, which had better graphics and a brisker gameplay, without annoying elements such as NPCs who up and disappear. In a couple days, I might find myself regretting two losses in a row, and thus try harder to document the endgame. We'll see.

In the meantime, if you ever want to try it for yourself, make sure you download it from a French abandonware site. The original game has pretty solid copy protection, and every time you try to enter a key building or take off from the spaceport, a message comes up telling you to buy a real copy at your nearest retailer. It took me a while to find a cracked version.
     
An anti-piracy message as I try to enter the Temple of Ineffable Truth.
      
The author of the game is the same "Ulysses," real name unknown, who wrote Tera. His partner, "Lout," is missing from the title screen of this production. Graphics--the part most different from Tera--are credited to an Yves Koskas. I'd love to track down this "Ulysses" some day and talk about what mushrooms he was taking when he developed these two games. Like many of the French RPGs we've seen, they have no clear connection to any previous RPG lineage, and they keep this blog interesting with images and gameplay elements we see nowhere else.

41 comments:

  1. The first LSL had a boss key too :)

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    1. LSL2 also had a boss key.

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  2. Minions of Ming? Perhaps a Ming the Merciless (Flash Gordon) reference?

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    1. Gah. I love the captions, but I always miss them the first time I read a post.

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  3. Ouch... how hard was that on the eyes to switch back forth between the two CGA 320x200x4 color palettes? Not too mention the additional text screens. Before developers started supporting TGA more frequently, I saw those palettes many a time!

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    1. They're supposed to look far better with a proper monitor, but when I was a kid, I didn't know anyone with the correct type of monitor.

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    2. Well, I can't imagine such proper monitor. What was it supposed to do, use yet another palette? :)

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    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    4. I'm sorry for frequent double comments. It seems that copy is created when I press "back" button on my phone. It is hard to remember not to do this.
      But what's worst is that removing copies breaks "recent comments" page. For example just a moment ago. I'm sorry for this.

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    5. It's less of a proper monitor, and more that it was expected you'd use composite output and a TV, and developers would abuse how composite video does color to get 16 colors out of 4 color CGA. There's even a version of Dosbox that emulates CGA composite, but it takes a bit to get it working.

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    6. CGA did have a native 16 color palette, but it only worked with a 160x100 resolution. It was very blocky!

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  4. "Goldarak" here is a digitised image of the Red Horn from the Zoids toy line. "Mme Butterfly" looks familiar too but I can't quite place her; is it Lady Jesica from David Lynch's Dune perhaps?

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    1. Great call on the first. I was thinking it represented some kind of toy.

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    2. Looks like Francesca Annis as Lady Jessica to me.. which is funny considering that Cryo's Dune game from 1992 (?) had a similar mechanic as this game, going from screen to screen in a world that wraps around itself. Why was that such a thing with french developers? KGB is another example, using the Dune-engine, I think.

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  5. The script looks like an odd mix of kanji - Chinese characters adapted to Japanese - and katakana - one of the Japanese phonetic scripts. Possible used for at least part of the sound. Weird.

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    1. It's Japanese, a combination of katakana and kanji. Ko-yama-ro- ma-yama. To their credit, they used almost phonetically appropriate katakana for the letters k,r,m.

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  6. Mysterious game. Hard to figure out what the developer imagined the finished product might look like when he started programming it.

    "But I'm not sure what's happening here."

    I parse that scene as 'woods, with a rock in the bottom right foreground'.

    Microprose's F19 Stealth Fighter had a boss key that presented the illusion of Dos prompt.

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  7. as you're in the 1987era... and into french RPG.. I should urge you to play "Sapiens" .. (https://www.abandonware-france.org/ltf_abandon/ltf_jeu.php?id=1571)

    It was a well done game with an unique setting (prehistory) and gameplay (3D exploration with 2D realtime combat, silex craving)

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    1. Seems more like an adventure game than an RPG, though. Do you know if there's character development?

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    2. home of the underdogs has this to say (http://www.homeoftheunderdogs.net/game.php?id=3748)

      "Sapiens gives you absolute freedom - you are free to explore the land and do whatever you want at any time. This degree of freedom, the virtual absence of plot, as well as the inclusion of basic RPG-style statistics such as Health, Agility, and Charisma, make Sapiens more of a survival simulation in the vein of Robinson's Requiem (although not 1/100th as aggravating) than a true adventure game. "

      please play this! please, please!

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  8. Only one thing about these french games is certain and it's that they sure are unique.

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  9. "Yay! I've always wanted to role-play a love-sick geisha who commits suicide!"

    Spoilers, dude! [Tears up opera tickets...]

    It would be a pity to have two unfinished games in a row, but given that it's in French I'm amazed (and not for the first time) that you've even got started. Normally I prefer these pieces of obscura, but this one does look a bit rubbish.

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    1. Ugh though... I think it is perfectly fine to call a turkey for what it is and move on to something worth the time to play and document.

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    2. I can read French okay, particularly for the short bursts of text in a game like this. It's more that I have no clear path to winning. If the NPCs didn't keep ditching my party while I was trying to assemble it, I'd probably try harder to continue.

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    3. Perhaps they stay longer with higher charm?

      The sword minigame is similar to the pirates err minions, you press the letter on the NumPad that corresponds to the direction of the sword to parry the blow. By pure chance, I pressed "a" directly after parrying (another letter might do, too, haven't tried), and landed a blow. After a few blows I won. The difficulty is very much affected by how many cycles you set in Dosbox.

      Winning lets you chose either a Samourai or a Ninja.

      The attacks even have correct names as far as I can tell (shomen for blows to the head, yokomen for blows to the temple, ...)

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    4. Kendo, and budo generally, was pretty big in France so I guess they had (relatively) easy access to the correct vocabulary?

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    5. I can see how this game is much more frustrating than Tera. In a way, the graphics are better (more complex), but it's much harder to recognize things like doors and obelisks. The food mechanic is not a welcome addition for me. You can interrogate and converse with your companions, but it's confusing what this really does, as is why they are fleeing sometimes. All together, it seems much harder and grindy than Tera.

      If you change your mind and give this another shot, there is a temple on Karma which has a few doors at least (it was surrounded by noxious fumes in my game - thanks a lot). There was also an antigrav vehicle somewhere that lets you jump several spaces on the map (saves food I guess but consumes fuel - not sure how that works out).

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  10. A clutch of the early Sierra adventures had boss keys, one of them (Space Quest 3 I think) brought up all caps text saying something like "WHAT? YOU DON'T WANT YOUR BOSS TO KNOW YOU'VE BEEN PLAYING FOR .

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    1. Haha, blogger doesn't allow brackets. That post was supposed to end "-number of hours and minutes since you started the session-"

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  11. Might&Magic III also has a kind of boss key: F10 drops you to a fake DOS prompt.

    btw: if you have seen for example "Christmas" or an "Italian restaurant" in Japan, you are not surprised any more how far "I know somebody who knows maybe two things about this, let's do it!" can get you ;-)

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  12. I've heard Maria Callas' version of Madame Butterfly. That whole game screams "Orientalism" to me, like the Chinese restaurants I visited as a child, that had bronze dragon heads with Christmas light eyes or Dr. Who and the Talons of Wang Chien.

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  13. I actually like the weird, hand-drawn looking graphics in this one. Would be nice to see them in a comprehensible game.

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  14. I really wanted to see more of this game. It's so strange and weird, it has my curiosity on edge much more than well documented games.

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  15. re Goldorak: at the time this game was published, the do-them-yourself collectible toy dinorobots Zoids were sold in large quantities in France, and the mechasaurus here looks the part ( it reminds me of the styracosaurus leader of the red Zoids which I think were meant as the bad guys ).

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  16. "Attributes are intelligence, speed [...]."

    You made a mistake there. The second one isn't "vitesse", it's "volonté" (willpower).

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    1. Thanks. I think I misread it as vélocité.

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  17. Thanks for your posts, it's nice to see some reviews of obscure foreign games.
    I just finished an article in English about the five games by Ulysse, it should give a good insight of his work :

    https://www.abandonware-france.org/ltf_abandon/ltf_infos_fic.php?id=102887

    Don't hesitate to ask more info if you need (on these games or any other old French game), I'll be glad to help. :-)

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    1. Thanks, Hoagie. That's a nice addition to this entry. And thanks for your site--without it, I wouldn't have been able to play at all.

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